The Turkish President is received by the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz in Berlin in November. Image credit: Juergen Nowak_Alamy Stock Photo

Is Erdoğan a credible power broker on Israel-Gaza?

 A report from Istanbul on the strategic calculation and controversial positioning of the Turkish president 
December 22, 2023

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin last month, the press conference was more than slightly awkward. Standing on the podium next to his European counterpart, Erdoğan suggested that Germany’s position on the ongoing Israel-Hamas war was influenced by its guilt over the Holocaust.

“Those who feel indebted to Israel cannot speak freely,” Erdoğan said, according to Reuters news agency. “We did not go through the Holocaust process, we don’t have such a situation, because our respect for humanity is different.”

Yet compared to some of his remarks on the ongoing Israel-Hamas war—the Turkish president has called Benjamin Netanyahu the “butcher of Gaza” and described Israel as a “terrorist state”—the comments were relatively moderate.  

The remarks showed how Erdoğan’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war has differed from that of western premiers. The 69-year-old Turkish leader has adopted Palestine as a cause that portrays his own nation as a regional power and protector of Muslims, carving out a position different to those of European politicians who have repeatedly talked about Israel’s right to defend itself.

Immediately after Hamas’ October 7 attacks, Erdoğan hoped to play a mediation role between Israel and the widely-proscribed Palestinian group, echoing his brokering of a deal that allowed grain to flow through the Black Sea after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The deal collapsed in July this year after Russia claimed that western pledges under the agreement were not being met. According to observers, Turkey’s leaders strongly believe in acting as a go-between to gain political capital on the international stage, bolstering the nation’s geopolitical standing even as its economy struggles with inflation of over 60 per cent and a weakening currency.

According to a senior Turkish official, another very senior intelligence official held talks with Qatari officials and Hamas representatives in Doha on 5th November and a preliminary agreement for the release of hostages was reached in Ankara two days later. “That agreement laid the groundwork for the eventual [hostage release] arrangement,” the official claimed. 

But overall, Qatar, Egypt and the US have emerged as more effective mediators, according to multiple regional diplomats. As Israel’s attacks increased, Erdoğan’s rhetoric became more acerbic. The president’s turn to what Turkey’s former representative to Nato Fatih Ceylan calls “pro-Hamas” rhetoric meant that Ankara lost credibility as a trusted negotiating power between Israel and Palestinians. “This belief in Turkey being an honest broker has gone,” he said.

Both Israeli and Turkish officials are under no false pretences that previous attempts to normalise their relations are now at an impasse. The two countries have withdrawn their ambassadors, without formally downgrading diplomatic ties.

A deal previously under discussion to export Israeli gas to Turkey could have been a big win for Turkey’s energy sector, which needs to shift away from reliance on Russian energy sources. But the talks are currently off the table.

Nonetheless, Israel is a key trade partner for Turkey and Ankara likely doesn’t want a situation where all trade is halted. Azerbaijani crude oil also continues to flow to Israel through Turkey— interrupting those exports would mean upsetting one of Ankara’s closest allies, Baku. That is not something that Turkey would do lightly.

Turkish officials repeatedly say that Ankara is committed to a two-state solution that guarantees peace and safety for both Palestinians and Israelis. While its room for manoeuvre in terms of mediation has narrowed, Turkey remains an essential regional power. It is known to Israel as a fellow sceptic of Iranian intentions, a conduit to talks with Russia and a partner with the EU on controlling migration.

Erdoğan’s western interlocutors are aware of his mercurialapproach, and generally do not let it get in the way of longer-term political, military and trade alliances. They continue to engage with the president and his top diplomats.

“Political leaders are used to Erdoğan’s techniques, which are very erratic. People who deal with him have learnt that they shouldn’t necessarily take his words at face value,” said Dawid Bartelt, Turkey director at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a German political organisation.

Simultaneously, Turkey needs the EU as a major trade partner and is loath to take actions over Israel and Palestine that would seriously threaten its ties with Europe. For that reason, it is also in Turkey’s interest to stem any further spread of the conflict across the region. It would not want a situation in which trade through to the Mediterranean is threatened above and beyond the damage already done by Houthi attacks on vessels in the Red Sea—some shipping companies have halted movements after incidents claimed by the Iran-backed Yemeni group.

Turkey also already has conflicts in Ukraine to the north, Syria and Iraq to the south and Nagorno-Karabakh to the east. The last thing it needed was another war on its doorstep.

Turkey is now attempting to steer regional negotiations over a two-state solution, in which it proposes acting as a guarantor. Details of the plan are scarce, but according to a Turkish diplomatic source, foreign countries would act “to monitor, to verify, and when needed to enforce the obligations of the parties collectively.” Actually implementing such a plan is a way off yet, though.

Erdoğan’s response to the Israel-Gaza war is also about internal politics. He plans to retake control of major cities including Ankara and Istanbul from the main opposition party in local elections next March. Responding to public rage about Palestine is a key way to win support across large parts of Turkish society.

“President Erdoğan’s rhetoric [over Israel and Palestine] is addressed to his domestic audiences, to consolidate his grassroots,” said Ceylan.

In recent days, as the death toll in Gaza tops 20,000,  European criticism of Israel has increased. Western leaders are not as blunt as Erdoğan, but Turkish and European positions on the conflict are drawing closer. The Turkish diplomatic source pointed to the large number of western countries—not including the UK or the US—who voted in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.

“Since almost all of the western countries were among those who voted in favour,” he said, “we all defend the same arguments.”